The Media on Katie Hill and What They’re Missing

By Genavieve Smith

CW: sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, revenge porn

If you’ve been paying attention to media coverage of former Congresswoman Katie Hill, then you should be frustrated. About a month ago, stories started popping up about the freshman representative’s role in what has been described as a “sex scandal.” Hill’s story is more than that, though; it is complicated and messy, ultimately provoking questions about the mainstream media’s ability to effectively respond to cases of abuse or sexual violence and misogyny, particularly as they relate to women in politics.

Last month right-wing website RedState (which we will not be linking here) published a story leaking nude photos of Hill and exposing her nonmonogamous relationship with her now-estranged husband Kenny Heslep and a younger campaign staffer—information Hill claims Heslep provided to the outlet out of spite. Heslep also allegedly released text messages from the campaign staffer that suggest her relationship with Hill and Heslep was potentially abusive. Additionally, Heslep even accused Hill of having another inappropriate relationship with her legislative director, which she has denied.

As a result, on October 23, the House Ethics Committee initiated an investigation into Heslep’s allegations against Hill. A few days later on October 27 she officially announced her resignation on Twitter, and on October 31 she gave her final speech before Congress, admitting to and apologizing for Heslep’s initial charge while simultaneously defending herself and all women against double standards and often violent mistreatment, particularly in workplace settings.

In the weeks since, journalists and politicians alike have commented on her aforementioned behavior, contributing to the overwhelming news cycle we are left to interpret. In their articles and tweets, they either defend Hill or admonish her for putting herself in such a vulnerable position, but few seem to examine Hill’s case holistically. In other words, even in the era of the #MeToo movement, the mainstream media still manages to oversimplify Hill’s “sex scandal.” There’s something journalists and politicians are missing; Hill is frequently portrayed as either a victim of misogyny, biophobia, and intense media scrutiny, or as someone who got what was coming to her. But it’s not that simple.

For example, in an article for CNN, writer Brandon Tensley defends Hill as a victim of “uneven standards,” drawing comparisons to the many men in power who have been accused of sexual misconduct without punishment (which I don’t disagree with): “[M]en, particularly those of certain political persuasions, are often given redemption arcs, while women who dare challenge norms…are expected to buckle to biases and, ultimately, bow out.”

The Washington Post published “What actually mattered in the Katie Hill scandal — and what didn’t,” in which columnist Monica Hesse encourages forgiveness, writing, “Katie Hill was pushed out for all the wrong reasons, but she’s trying to do the decent human thing now.” And several of Hill’s friends and colleagues in Congress, including Representative Ayanna Pressley, have spoken out in her favor, often tweeting their support.

On the other hand, the New York Times published a story titled “Now Comes the Naked Truth,” in which opinion columnist Maureen Dowd ironically protests against the phrase “OK, Boomer,” instructing other millennials to learn from Katie Hill’s mistakes: “And don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition — or the nudes — to strip you of your dreams,” she writes, victim-blaming Hill for trusting her husband and “the shiny tools of modernity.”

And other, usually more conservative publications have targeted Hill for being bisexual, poking fun at her non-monogamous relationship by publishing stories with headlines that include phrases like “#MeThree” and “Swing district.”

Taken together, these stories and tweets ultimately reduce Hill’s case down to something it isn’t; some ignore her abusive faults while others literally just shame her for being a queer woman who has sex. Either way, they fail to accurately respond to the situation, leaving readers with a skewed understanding of Hill’s case and its important implications.

Looking back, yes, Hill is both a perpetrator and a victim; this is partially about a misuse of authority. Hill’s relationship with an employee—who is significantly younger than her—was absolutely inappropriate, especially when its details are taken into account. In the texts supposedly released by Heslep, Hill’s former campaign staffer wrote, “I am terrified of pushing back against you or upsetting you,” and that Hill “isolated” her and “took all of her friends.”

But as CNN writer Tensley notes, it’s also true that Hill was given a much worse sentence than most men accused of similar—or dare I say worse—sexual indiscretions throughout all of history, which is valid to note. Our current president, for example, has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct by at least 25 women. Yet, as the former sentence indicates, he was elected president, remains president, and has never been investigated on any of these claims, or harassed for them—and we all know he’s not the only one. So, yes, Hill’s case is also about double standards.

Particularly, it’s about the double standards that prevent women from seeking office in the first place, bully women out of office, and criticize women with political power in much harsher lights.

Hill has been abused with public sex-shaming, biphobia, and revenge porn—a form of sexual violence that is illegal in D.C. and the state she represents, California. As a response to the violence she was accused of and admitted to, others have harassed her and threatened her with violence, marking violence against elected women as an effective form of control—a tool used to to negatively impact women’s political participation and even counteract progressive change.

In her resignation statement, Hill wrote, “having private photos of personal moments weaponized against me has been an appalling invasion of my privacy.” While Hill certainly made mistakes, she was also taken advantage of, likely by someone she had been in a relationship with for many years. And unfortunately, the narrative is almost completely centered on her; her soon-to-be ex-husband faces none of the consequences or scrutiny despite also engaging in abusive behavior (and being a part of the relationship with Hill’s campaign staffer).

This is worthy to note because of the context in which Hill was elected. Hill was sworn in alongside several other progressive women following a presidential election in which the first female candidate to win a major party’s nomination lost to a known misogynist and abuser. And from the very beginning, her campaign was markedly progressive.

On the campaign trail, Hill was outspoken about abortion access and sexual assault, earning herself endorsements from major feminist-focused groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List. Additionally, Hill was only the second openly bisexual woman to ever serve as a member of Congress, indicating her election symbolized a challenge to Congressional power norms.

So now that the dust has settled and Hill’s story is almost out of the news cycle, we can look back and see where mistakes were made. Perhaps resigning was the right thing for Hill to do—I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But she was never given the chance. Rather, she was pushed out of office, whether right or wrong, through arguably hostile means.

Thus, complex and confusing cases like Hill’s make it clear the mainstream media often overlooks important intricacies of stories that involve sensitive issues like identity and sexual violence. For those on the political right, Hill’s case is somehow being portrayed as a win for them—something that shouldn’t even be considered when it comes to bringing justice to victims of sexual or intimate partner violence and holding perpetrators accountable. But none of this was about accountability or justice in the first place. This was always about revenge, political partisanship and bribery, and exploiting our culture’s misogynistic proclivity to perpetrate violence against, harass, and violate women, especially women with political power, something Hill’s own resignation speech seems to highlight better than most commentary out there.

By Genavieve Smith

Genavieve is a student studying political science at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, advocating for survivors of sexual violence, and protecting reproductive rights for all.

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